Individual pupil plans will multiply

Strategy to be used in all elementary grades next year

Help in reading and math

O'Rourke seeks to tailor learning to each child's needs

January 31, 2002|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

If some Howard County schools are stuck in the MSPAP mud -- as evidenced by their falling or stagnant scores on the state's annual achievement exams -- Superintendent John R. O'Rourke thinks he might have the answer: expanding a groundbreaking accountability program he launched last year with third-graders to include all struggling elementary children.

The program, which requires teachers to prepare individual improvement plans, might also be broadened to include elementary children who are not below grade level, the superintendent said in a recent interview. It could eventually be extended to middle and high school students, he added.

The prospect of developing such elaborate learning plans for all 47,000 Howard County students leaves some county educators with mixed feelings -- especially since the first year's results for the third-graders have yet to be evaluated.

But O'Rourke is pushing ahead in an effort to see schools' scores improved and pupil progress accelerated.

"We'll be identifying by the end of the year every student in every elementary school who is below grade level in reading and math, and they will have an individualized plan," O'Rourke said. "And maybe someday, someone will ask the question, `What would happen if all the kids had an individualized learning plan?'"

"It's working its way into middle and high schools as well," O'Rourke said Monday, the day Howard's flat scores on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests were released. "We're getting better and better at asking those questions, `How are we going to get better?'"

The state's goal is for 70 percent of all students to achieve a "satisfactory" score on the tests, given each spring to third-, fifth- and eighth-graders. Last year's results, released this week, showed that 61.2 percent of Howard County children reached that goal -- down from 61.4 percent last year.

Even with the small dip, Howard is the Maryland county closest to reaching the 70 percent goal. But O'Rourke said the county must do better.

Of the county's 55 elementary and middle schools, 23 posted gains on last year's scores. And 15 met or exceeded the state's 70-percent goal.

"Even those [15] can do better," O'Rourke said. "I am trying to imbue the culture with a sense of continuous improvement."

In October 2000, O'Rourke pushed the boundaries of accountability, telling principals he wanted the names of every third-grader who was behind in reading or math -- along with a personalized improvement plan -- and telling the public that he would be ultimately responsible for each child's success.At the time, educators called the move "significant" and "exciting."

Those children are in fourth grade now, and O'Rourke and Howard County reading teachers are saying the individual "student support plans," could be the answer to schools that are not meeting the state standard on the exams.

Most schools require teachers to develop a written process by which a failing child can improve. But the sheer numbers -- and formality -- of the Howard project make it unique in the region, if not the state.

Assistant State Superintendent of Instruction Sandra J. Erickson said she did not know of another program in Maryland like Howard's.

But the Howard plans are not extraordinarily nouveau. They consist of about four to six pages of teacher observations about how to accelerate a child's learning.

The stapled, 8-by-10 inch sheets include spaces to mark off the child's progress in various areas, such as "sight words" or homework. They require a listing of all interventions being done on the child's behalf, including before- and after-school tutoring, homework club or summer school.

They also integrate a little-known Howard County tool called a student learner profile, which gives teachers a better idea of how pupils learn best; want to be motivated, rewarded or evaluated; and how they would like their classroom environments set up.

Many teachers in Howard County say anecdotally that the plans, generally, are working.

"They're wonderful," said Judi Littman, a reading support teacher at Jeffers Hill Elementary School, which saw its scores jump from 59.8 to 67.2 on the MSPAP exams.

"They have been very successful. It really helps the teacher key in on the specific areas that the kids have trouble with," Littman said. "When they're about to do their planning for instruction, they take out their student support plans so that they can use them."

Even schools that dropped slightly in MSPAP scores believe the support plans are beneficial, especially for added structure.

Bushy Park Elementary School reading specialist Cathy Nelka said Howard County teachers always have kept records on pupils' progress. "A lot of times that tends to be scattered; things become redundant," Nelka said. The student support plans, however, are centralized and more focused.

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